Black women working as maids for white families. It was a touchy topic in the 1960s South, "tacky" to talk about. "They might hear us," author Kathryn Stockett says. It's still not openly discussed in 2009. It sure is being read about, though.
"The Help", by Kathryn Stockett. (Amy Einhorn/Putnam, $24.95).Audiobook: Unabridged, (Penguin Audiobooks, $19.58-27.95), 18 hours, 6 minutes, narrated by Jenna Lamia, Cassandra Campbell, Octavia Spencer (right), Bahni TurpinAmazon Kindle: $9.99
Stockett's "The Help," released in February, now sits at No. 12 on The New York Times best-seller list after seven weeks on the chart. The audio version of the book is an audible.com best-seller. And Tate Taylor and Brunson Green, Los Angeles filmmakers born and raised in Jackson, Miss., have bought the option for film rights to the book.
Stockett, a Jackson, Miss., native now living in Atlanta, says support for her book "has been overwhelming." While there are male characters in the novel, it's primarily about the relationships between women, black and white.
"The Help" is a book about a book, told in the voices of three women. It starts in 1962, the beginning of the civil rights movement, with Medgar Evers' death and President John F. Kennedy's assassination in the near future.
Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan has just returned home to Jackson, Miss., with an Ole Miss degree (but no Mrs. degree) to find out the beloved family maid, Constantine, is no longer there, and no one will tell her why.
Skeeter is naive and is part of the Ladies League, bridge club crowd, but smart and a little independent.
Aibileen is maid to one of Skeeter's lifelong friends. She has raised 17 white children, her own son having been killed in a work accident while white employers weren't paying attention.
Aibileen is wise and steady, but carries a "poison seed" within her since her son's death. She loves the white children she has raised, but dreads the day each of her young wards becomes aware that she's "colored" and, thus, viewed as inferior.
Minny is a short, stout and mouthy maid who's lost many a job for talking back. She has plenty of her own children and a drunken, abusive husband. But she may be the best cook in town. She is Aibileen's best friend, and the two struggle between being too compliant and saying what they think.
Never an easy call in their situation.
When Skeeter's friend is goaded by another into adding a separate toilet for "colored people" (meaning Aibileen), Skeeter bristles.
Her bridge friends' complacency over the topic ignites a small fire under Skeeter, who slowly gets it in her mind to help the maids say what they think.
She secretly gathers about a dozen stories about working for white families in Jackson — some heartwarming, some downright scary — all in the maids' own words.
The tension beneath it all springs from the danger of publishing such a book, even anonymously, with names and places changed to make each maid's story an anyone's tale in any Southern town.
Stockett was aware of similar risks of writing "The Help," even in the 21st century.
"So much time has passed since this was status quo, when everybody had a maid," she says. "It was a story I was writing for me, not so much for anybody else."
She had a personal connection. In the book's acknowledgements, she writes about Demetrie, her grandparents' maid, whom she adored.
The writing wasn't easy, though. It took about five years to write the book, Stockett says, but she worked naturally with the dialects she had heard growing up.
"Skeeter, though," she says. "She was harder to write than the black voices, maybe because she was more 'me' than anyone else in the book. Plus, I was so aware of the line Skeeter was crossing, befriending black women in a time when it was against Mississippi law for blacks and whites to even sit down in a restaurant together.
"But Skeeter broke all the rules, and true to my Southern side, I was nervous to write in the voice of such a risk-taker," Stockett says.
Readers seem to appreciate the effort.
"People have been so forthcoming ... wanting to share their experiences. Which was sort of shocking," she says. "I think they were surprised that someone finally wrote about it. There's been a sense of sadness, too, that they weren't able to thank these people as much as they wanted to."
There's been no real criticism, though, "at least not in terms of broaching the subject," she says.
There have been some vague complaints that the book "cast white people unfairly, from a few African-Americans."
And a little concern from within her family, she says, where she got a little too close to the truth some- times.
She mined the memories of her own family and friends in Jackson for the meticulous details she used to paint the South in the '60s.
"I would just ask everyone ... what it was like, what they remembered. Family, everyone," she says. "It's amazing how much love came through ... so much love in the home. I'm so proud of that."
There's no tidy ending for "The Help." There couldn't be. Progress creeps along, takes a small jump, and then moves slowly from there, waiting for another chance to leap again.
"The Help" is a serious book, tempered with humor and love. It makes a point: "We are all just people. Not that much separates us."